Surgical fires: When surgical errors cause serious burns

This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is holding a webinar focused on a surprisingly persistent issue: surgical fires. While fires during surgery may seem like an abnormal occurrence, somewhere between 550 and 650 of these fires occur every year.

Surgical fires are often caused by the high concentrations of oxygen present in operating rooms. Surgical equipment such as lasers and drills can ignite the oxygen while drapes, sponges and even body hair can act as fuel to the fire. This means that patients can catch on fire while under anesthesia on the operating table and suffer serious burns. Many of these injuries are preventable, the result of medical negligence.

Some recent cases involving operating room fires include:

  • A Florida man suffered second-degree burns and hair loss during a 2008 surgery.
  • A New York patient was severely burned on his chest and neck when an electronic scalpel ignited an oxygen supply, causing an explosion.
  • A Pennsylvania woman suffered burns to her face, trachea, lungs and larynx when an anesthetist failed to tell a surgeon that he had administered additional oxygen. The operating room fire began when the surgeon turned on an electrocautery device, which ignited the drapes.
  • A Washington, D.C., woman was killed after a tracheal operation in which an antiseptic was not given time to dry and caught on fire, causing serious burns to her chest, airway, throat and more.

In many of these surgical fire cases, the hospital, anesthesiologist, surgeon or other medical professionals may be held liable for the injuries their surgical mistakes caused.

The FDA webinar will hopefully help to prevent some of these fires by educating healthcare professionals about how these fires occur and how they can be avoided.

Source:, “FDA focusing on patients catching fire in operating rooms,” Aisling Swift, June 12, 2012.